Naughties List

Maybe end-of-the-year lists (especially the dreaded listicle) were around before this decade, but it is during the Naughties that I began my love-hate relationships with them. On the one hand, I love parsimony and groups of things. On the other hand, I hate oversimplification and anything that smacks of lobbying for cool points. [That makes this post a digest, and not a list.] (And if you’re interested, an exhaustive Noughtie list can be found on Kottke. On that list, I’d particularly recommend the CBC series, “20 pieces of music that changed the world.” This is as good as a primer in music history…and isn’t a year end list.)

End of the year/decade lists typically suffer from the crippling limitations imposed by the individual or institutional limitations of their author/host.

For example, end of the year lists reflect the systems of preferential advancement that promote white, American, males over others. Here’s a “best music books of the decade” that should undergo serious revision at the hands of yours truly, except that my hands are busy doing what white people do best which is ignoring the critical, social importance of non-white/non-American music in favor of writing another love letter to people who write about punk/alternative rock. (Important exception to my sarcastic critique: Jessica Hopper’s book. It deserves to be there.)

Lists also confront the difference between commercial and critical success. If you want a list of the  “Top 20 books of the decade” you’d better not follow that link…that is, unless you think the “top 20” are defined by sales. You’ll find best sellers dominate the list, to the near exclusion of well-written novels. (Although they throw you the bone of the “Kite book” and Oscar Wao, last year’s Pulitzer winner.)

Finally, there’s an isomorphic pressure on end-of-the-year/decade list makers, such that they tend to have only minor variations from a formula. This year’s formula? “This decade sucked.” To wit, see Worst Decade Ever?, A Decade So Bad, It Didn’t Even Have a Name And No One Even Knows Its Ending, & 10 Worst Things About the Worst Decade Ever.

I understand the need to thematize the year/decade (although I’m not the person I know who does this the most, and most self-consciously), and so I’ll throw out my vote: I think this is the decade in modern history in which we became the most confused about the difference between needs and wants. I am not going to give you any evidence for this claim, even if you want me to.

In closing, I’m going to throw it to Rob Walker and his Naughtie theory:

Just the other night I was watching Anderson Cooper’s variety show on CNN, and right before a commercial break, Mr. Cooper showed about seven seconds of wobbling and grainy footage of a burning truck speeding down a highway. “A burning truck on a highway,” he said (or words to that effect). He looked, and sounded, very concerned. “We’ll tell how it happened, and where, right after this.”Upon reflection I think this is the most significant moment of the past 10 years. That is because it is an event that embodies so many 21st-century events: Something is happening, somewhere, and it has no particular effect on you whatsoever. The latest details in a moment.

I do not suggest that nothing happened in the past ten years. Things happened; significant ones, good and bad. But much of what happened was not noteworthy for having happened, it was noteworthy for having been noted, despite not being particularly noteworthy. We know the space in which news can be noted is now infinite; we know the noting of news has been “democratized.” But the pace of news worth noting has not kept up.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Naughties List

  1. C

    Nice post.

    I have to respectfully disagree with your critique of the “Top 20 Books of the Decade” list, however. The list is titled to be representative of “influential” books (not “good” books or “timeless” books), and for better or worse, with regards to genre, style, and publishing trends, it’s pretty spot on for the most part.

    * Eggers and DFW (who aren’t good writers, or these just aren’t novels?) are largely responsible for a shift in under 40 authoring and publishing, and much of under 40 semi-indy and faux-indy media (the “hysterical realism” genre, as James Wood somewhat mockingly refers to it).

    * Satarpi wrote the graphic novel with the most crossover literary credibility (deserved or not) of the decade in the decade in which graphic novels (despite Maus much earlier) really gained literary credibility. It’s hugely influential.

    * Rowling, on top of selling more books than anybody, also changed the entire children’s book market. If you talk to people who work in YA, there has been a big shift from catering to the library market to the trade market, which comes with a whole host of implications for children’s literature. Rowling is largely responsible for this.

    * Men, according to popular publishing wisdom, don’t read fiction. Men under 40 REALLY don’t read fiction. Palahniuk’s success is the reason why people still occasionally publish fiction for this demographic. Palahniuk is also thought of as a writer for non-readers. He’s quite influential for that reason.

    There of course many others such as Schlosser really re-creating the food/non-fic genre and paving the way for Michael Pollan, the new Foer, etc., Larson breathing life back into the literary true-crime tradition of Mailer, Brandt, etc., Sedaris who has caused 25% of all people (in my estimation) in writing workshops to be working on “humorous short memoirs, like Sedaris” and so on. And the schlocky memoirs! Unfortunately there has been nothing that is more influential in this decade than the schlocky memoirs.

    Really, save for maybe Chabon and his legitimizing of genre fiction and Gladwell and the creation of the business/pop-academic market I think this list nails the influential books pretty well.

    Also to their credit, the list seems pretty representative of the trade market (it has fiction, nonfiction, YA, memoir, graphic novels), while also being evenly distributed between bestsellers, award winners (which of course usually end up as bestsellers — one of the reasons the publishing industry awards itself so much), and books that ushered in (or brought back) genres and writing styles that have been the subject of copycat publishing since their release (even copycat titling, in the case of Eat, Pray, Love). Not bad for a regional paper!

    If they were just going for the top sellers, they’d have Nora Roberts, James Patterson, and Stephanie Meyer (over 25% of all trade books sold in the first four months of 2009 were Twilight related according to Bookscan).

    As for “well written novels,” a highly subjective category to be sure, they’re unfortunately not that influential for the most part, despite there being no shortage of them being published. They’re probably (and thankfully) over-published from a pure economic standpoint. Despite ahistoric arguments to the contrary, the trade industry in the U.S. has always been strongly middlebrow. Which books were you thinking of?

  2. Leor

    Although I agree with many of the points you make, I think you really pigeonholed tossing my “best books of the decade” list into your naughties list round up. Like I said in the post, I can’t possibly touch upon every single book: It was merely an exercise in some of the music books I’ve read and enjoyed. And for that, I’m pinned down with supporting a white, male-centric view of contemporary music… never mind the fact that in a list of ten books, 1 book is about classical music, another is about hip-hop, another is about Muslim punk musicians, another is about musicians of all races and ethnicities who are deeply involved in electronic music, another discusses the contributions of men and women to alternative culture, another discusses the multiracial and gender balance in DC’s punk community, another talks about the immense impact of non-western music on post-punk music, and another is an ongoing collection on rock music written by a group of authors from a variety of backgrounds. Go ahead and white-wash it all you want, but I think that’s a real shame for anyone who may be slightly interested in those books and is trustily turned off by your critique.

    But, so I tend to gravitate towards more punk and rock-related books. Did I ever try and cover that up? Am I the one who is saying that my list is the be-all-end-all of music book lists, or are you the one who is putting it there and saying it’s a false list because of that?

    I completely understand where you’re coming from, but hear where I’m coming from: I never set out to make a “be all, end all list.” In fact, nearly every “end of something” list I made clearly points out that I just wanted to have a little fun. My first post for True/Slant was questioning the very authority that these lists have!

  3. Jenn Lena

    C and Leor: Thank you for the earnestness and care you put into your replies to my post. You may be right in thinking that I chose the wrong particular lists to make (what you both seem to accept is) the right point about lists. I exactly meant to point out the constraints that prevent (even well-meaning) list makers (who add caveats to this effect) from making “be all, end all” lists.

    Perhaps this merits a second post–that is, maybe I won’t be able to provide enough argument in a comment–but I think the character (features, attributes, discourse, rationalizations) of our lists is the thing that defines our age. It is the formula of classification, not the content of lists, that define us. And so my list (which I called a digest, to make fun of myself) is also supposed to illuminate this fact…one of our “list types” (??) is the one where we criticize lists for using commercial over “artistic” criteria. Another list type is the one where we criticize others for the racism/sexism/etcism of their lists.

    Is it…making more sense now?

    I’m sure I was being too cute. I just wanted to think a little bit about lists qua lists.

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